When I was a kid, I was taught to revere the Founders of this nation. We were taught to be grateful for this great nation and the many freedoms we have.
Now? We’re more likely to hear the Founders were all slave owners, and they were trying to protect slavery and white supremacy. They were hypocrites when they spoke of “all men being created equal.” They codified slavery in the Constitution which said slaves only counted as three-fifths of a person. The whole system they created is irredeemably racist and corrupt and needs to be tossed aside.
The Founders went from saints to villains in barely a generation.
The patron saint of wokeness, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, described the Fourth of July as a “celebration of white supremacy.” He also persuaded Nike to drop an athletic shoe with the “Betsy Ross” flag on it because it represented a time when America had slavery.
That flag was good enough to be flown at both of Barack Obama’s Presidential inaugurations. Betsy Ross, to whom legend attributes the design, was a Quaker who despised slavery.
It needs to be pointed out slavery in the American colonies was not under threat from the British authorities in 1776. If the Founders were so keen about protecting slavery, then why did they state in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that slavery would never be extended to the territories that eventually became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin?
Let’s see what a few of the Founders had to say about slavery, as reported by the Heritage Foundation:
“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.” - George Washington, 1786
“ … Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States … . I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in abhorrence … .” - John Adams, 1819
“Slavery is … an atrocious debasement of human nature.” - Benjamin Franklin, 1789
“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever … .” - Thomas Jefferson, 1781
“The laws of certain states … give an ownership in the service of negroes as personal property … . But being men, by the laws of God and nature, they were capable of acquiring liberty—and when the captor in war … thought fit to give them liberty, the gift was not only valid, but irrevocable.” - Alexander Hamilton, 1795.
“We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” - James Madison, 1787.
Those don’t sound like men who were trying to protect slavery to me.
The fact is, the founders were not of one mind regarding slavery. Some, like Ben Franklin and John Jay, were adamantly opposed to it. Franklin even co-founded one of the first abolitionist societies in the American colonies.
There were others who were pro-slavery. There were also those, like Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves but were clearly uncomfortable with it. However, they didn’t know what to do about it.
One of the comments made about Jefferson by his contemporaries was the man could talk but came up short on actions. We would say he could talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk.
It’s worth noting that in 1753, when Jefferson was a first-term member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, he introduced a bill to outlaw slavery in the colony. It was soundly defeated.
When speaking of the founders, it’s important to remember that these men were (gasp!) politicians. They were trying to form a coalition to fight the British, and later, when writing the Constitution, forge these former colonies into something that resembled a nation. This meant they had to make deals and compromises. That meant having to accept some things they abhorred. For many of the founders, this meant they had to accept slavery.
What the founders did was they kicked the can of slavery down the road for some future generation to solve. The issue was solved, but it took a bitter, bloody four-year civil war to do it.
Some critics have said the Constitution is a pro-slavery document. However, the Constitution never mentions slavery until the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery in the United States.
But what of the infamous “three-fifths” provision? This, again, was a compromise. Slave states wanted their slave populations fully included for apportionment in the House of Representatives. Free States wanted slave populations to be excluded as they couldn’t vote. The three-fifths provision appeared to be something everyone could live with for a time. It’s worth noting it was defeated at the Constitutional Convention several times before it passed. It was clear they couldn’t get a Constitution without it.
Curiously, they are never referred to as slaves, but simply as “other persons.”
In spite of this, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said the Constitution was, at its heart, an anti-slavery document.
The founders of this nation could be best described as only human. They were saints and sinners at the same time. They had their faults and they had to make deals that went against many of the things they believed. However, they left us with two documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, that have served as an inspiration to freedom-loving people for more than 200 years.
That is something worth celebrating and holding on to.